The Unheralded Value of Candidate Preparedness

Logic dictates that, as executive search professionals, we should spend most of our time reading, writing, and thinking about being of service to the almighty client. However, we must not forget about educating the other ingredient, and the increasingly valuable half of our placement recipe, the candidate. To this day I have well-intentioned clients providing feedback to me after interviews that, although my heavily credentialed candidate was impressive and generally qualified, they are not going to pursue his candidacy because he was ill prepared.

A candidate’s lack of acute knowledge about your client company’s environment, coupled with poor closing techniques, will kill any potential deal regardless of the candidate-driven environment in which we operate today. Why go through all of the hard work (and unfortunately sometimes the brain damage) that it takes to “set the referral” – confirming a time and place for a prescreened, professionally recruited candidate to be interviewed by a bona fide, fee-paying client – only to hear that all went well, but “Curtis didn’t have any questions about our company when it came time for him to ask about us, so we will pass.”

So, in an effort to remove some of the uncertainty from our complex search and placement process, I have provided some tried and proven information for candidates to use before going on that critical first interview. As executive search consultants, we need to remind ourselves that, regardless of how excited we may be about the résumé and the candidate behind it, unless he or she is willing to take the time and do the work to prepare for the interview, our chances of a successful outcome are definitely reduced.

If a candidate getting ready for an interview looks at the meeting as a sales call in which he will be selling himself to the prospective employer, then the third-party recruiter who sets up the potentially lucrative meeting will benefit tremendously. And as with any other interpersonal event where one individual is attempting to persuade the other to embrace his/her position or product, one fundamental principle rules the interaction. The individual who has done the most work in preparation is most likely to win the desired outcome.

The good news is that today’s employment marketplace is flush with hot opportunities for talented personnel. But the elite companies revving America’s economic engine are much more critical and discerning hirers after the bloat of the 1990s and the tremendous market-cap hits they took post-9/11. So the majority of the high-growth firms adding personnel now have standards for and definitions of excellence that are specific to their needs, market niches, products and services, and even their culture.

Getting into the party for a potentially career-upgrading interview is increasingly realistic for strong performers. However, unless you have all the right moves, once inside, the bright lights will make you melt like butter. To pick up on the action a candidate covets, here’s what he/she needs to do to be put in a position of promoting one’s career.

First, accept the fact that interviewing today is less about performance and more about meaningful dialogue than ever. Therefore, professional job aspirants who prepare by researching the hiring firm via the Internet through websites, blogs, and newspaper articles will have a working knowledge of the company and its executives, enabling them to be more confident and at ease when eyes meet. Preparation will lead to questions. Candidates need to write them down and be ready to ask them at a second’s notice. It is fine to look at the meeting as a mutual learning experience, but if they do not have appropriate questions to ask, the interview will lack direction and positive interactive energy.

Candidates must remember that preparation is a multi-faceted approach. Knowing about your prospective employer without knowing what they are looking for in an employee is fruitless. Interviewees must acknowledge that the individual you are meeting wants to hire their best competitor’s top employee. If you start with that crucial notion in mind, you will begin to understand the psychological needs of the interviewer. If you do not possess the ideal credentials, the next best strategy is to convince the interviewer that you possess personal achievements that are truly relevant to his/her company. Be ready to blow your own horn in detail regarding those successes. Make an attempt to be specific about closely related responsibilities, accomplishments, etc. Remember, it’s your track record. If you are not ready to shout about it with compelling style while in an exciting interview, no one ever will be!

Once you have sold yourself to the prospect, if it is still unclear what the hirer is looking for, here’s the first question to ask. “Ms. Johnson, my recruiter did an excellent job of filling me in on your opportunity and I have uncovered some exciting research about your firm, but I always like to hear it directly from the executive’s perspective. Can you tell me please exactly what it is you are looking for in the ideal candidate today?”

What better way to qualify your interviewer and set the stage for an appropriate discussion germane to your mutual business interests? This question is also an excellent way to disarm the employer and take a little bit of the pressure off you. Inevitably, the tide will be turned and you will be asked some open-ended questions. Do not fall into the trap of trying to answer questions like “Tell me about yourself” without counter-ing the questioner on what it is about yourself that she would like to know. This again will help you to maintain some control, keep the interview focused, and most importantly, help you avoid the biggest mistake a career prospect can make. In my 26-plus years of experience as a headhunter, the objection I hear most often from client executives is that candidates ramble on and on, instead of providing a thoughtful, concise answer and shutting up.

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There are several more ideas that a candidate needs to be aware of in order to be prepared enough to ace the interview, but none more important than asking for the order. What a shame and waste it would be to do your homework, review, ask revealing questions, state your relevant personal accomplishments, and have a positive inter-personal experience without attempting to ask for the job. And yet, as any grizzled recruiter can tell you, it happens all the time.

Whether the role to be filled and the candidate involved is an entry-level administrator or a VP of sales, most candidates have a hard time humbling themselves enough to ask another person what they think of them. Instead of figuring out why, just convince your candidates that they may as well forget about showing up for the meeting unless they possess the gumption to articulate an emotional close.

Two statements should suffice. First, candidates must ask the interviewer one final question. “How do I stack up?” is the simplest way to put it. Any question that enables you, as a job seeker, to qualify the hiring authority per the interview that is about to wrap up is fine. If you can pull out any concerns, that is even better. Address them as well as possible before moving to the real close.

Second, let the interviewer know that you are serious about joining his or her company and why. (If this is the case. If not, just thank the interviewer for his or her time and walk away a more enlightened professional.) “I just want you to know that I am excited about what I have heard today! I know that I would be an asset to your company because of my experience and passion for what you and your colleagues are attempting to accomplish in the near future.” Then it is important for truly motivated candidates to be specific about how they will contribute an immediate impact to the prospective employer. Last but not least, just say, “I would really like to consider an offer with your company.” And shut up. Whatever happens next will reveal more than a glimpse into the future.

These tips are beneficial for both the diligent search practitioner and aspiring job seekers. In the business of headhunting today, it is challenging enough to identify and attract a well-qualified candidate while there is a dearth of truly suitable supply. Enhancing that talent to shine in the interview setting is a touch of magic that we can realistically expect through our ability to provide preparation and encouraging interviewees to make the extra effort themselves. By so doing, we raise the stature of that candidate to A player, and all of our expectations for success.

Jordan A. Greenberg is president of The Pinnacle Source, Inc., in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and is a 26-year veteran of the recruiting business.

Jordan A. Greenberg is the president of The Pinnacle Source, Inc., a search and placement firm specializing in, but not limited to, the recruiting of sales/sales management talent for IT companies. He has been servicing this community, based in Colorado, since 1981. Contact him at (303) 796-9900,, or